What We Already Knew

A huge new survey of campus sexual assault is long on percentages, short on insights.

This study, unfortunately, is more concerned with calculating averages than with disentangling the differences along a spectrum.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Shutterstock.

The Association of American Universities’ much-anticipated report on sexual assault—a survey that compiled responses from more than 150,000 students at 27 universities—is out today, and it confirms that the situation on campus is as bad as you probably already thought it was. Some bullet points:

One-third of female college seniors reported that they had been the victims of nonconsensual sexual contact at least once since enrolling in college.

• For transgender, queer, and other gender-nonconforming seniors, the number was an even higher 39.1 percent.

• Just 38.9 percent of students thought reporting sexual misconduct would result in campus officials taking action.

Not encouraging and not surprising.

These numbers are roughly consistent with findings of previous studies; if anything, they’re a little higher than the results of the seminal 2007 study that gave us the grim axiom “1-in-5.”—but the authors acknowledge that could be due to the low response rate of 19.3 percent, and the possibility that people who’d experienced misconduct were more likely to participate. As always, the authors had to deal with the challenge of conveying uniform definitions in an area where every experience is intensely individual; for this reason, they didn’t use loaded words such as rape and assault, instead trying to precisely describe situations. But this could’ve caused confusion as well as averted it.

The most interesting thing in the AAU study isn’t what’s on the page, but a question that hovers, frustratingly, between the lines. “The study found a wide range of variation across the 27 [institutions],” the authors write in the executive summary. Fascinating! Here we’re going to get at something exciting and new: The AAU is a prestigious higher education trade group, and by encouraging its members—ranging from Ivies such as Brown and Cornell to flagship state schools such as the University of Texas–Austin and Ohio State University—to submit to the same set of questions, it’s created a rare window into different factors and approaches that create sexual culture on campus.

So, what did the study authors do with this unusual array of data?

“The analyses did not find a clear explanation for why there is such wide variation,” they write. “Some university characteristics, such as size, were correlated with certain outcomes. But the correlation was not particularly strong.”

This stymied, vaguely apologetic sentiment appears so often in the report that it becomes a refrain. Across the 27 schools, the rate of students who reported nonconsensual sexual contact involving force or incapacitation (as opposed to coercion or lack of affirmative consent, two other categories the researchers used) varied from 13 percent to 30 percent. For undergraduates, private universities had a higher rate than public ones (25.3 percent versus 22.8 percent); for graduate and professional students, that trend was reversed. Don’t ask why.

Likewise, the proportion of female undergrads who reported having sexual encounters in which the other person did not obtain affirmative consent goes as low as 5 percent at some schools, as high as 21 percent at others. Smaller campuses had higher rates than large ones, and private schools had higher rates than public ones. Are there reasons for this? Are more negative reports actually a sign of an improving sexual climate—one where students are sharply aware of their boundaries and rights—or of a particularly malignant one? These are the kinds of things it would be helpful to know.

This study, unfortunately, is more concerned with calculating averages than with disentangling the differences along a spectrum. This raises questions that are as old as the women’s movement, but to which we still don’t have good answers: What is rape culture? Is it any culture where rape happens? What factors—from institutional identity, to social traditions, to disciplinary code—combat such a culture and instead promote equality on campus? What factors undermine sexual safety and respect?

One of the most interesting nuggets in the AAU study is a bit of empirical proof that students experience their campus’s sexual climates differently. “Male students are more optimistic than females” about how their campus community will respond to an assault—for example, about 60 percent of men think it is “very or extremely likely” that other students would support a victim who reported an incident; only about half of women agree. This, again, should not come as a shock—but it does underscore how nebulous campus culture can be, and yet how important it is to the way students feel and the decisions they make.

The AAU has always said that it planned to publish aggregate results from its survey, and to let members decide what they wanted to do with their individual slices of the dataset. For good reason, observers never expected to see those numbers. But Monday, in an unexpected show of the-universe-is-not-always-terrible, schools have been handing them over to the Washington Post.

With that information in hand, and with some further investigation, maybe we could begin to understand why, for example, 19 percent of undergraduate women at Iowa State University and 20 percent at the University of Florida report being victims of some nonconsensual sexual contact, compared to 26 percent at Harvard and 28 percent at Dartmouth. Understanding even subtle differences could help us do something constructive about this universal problem. So far, this study mostly tells us that the problem exists—something we should already know.